Discriminatory State Rhetoric Is Threatening Turkey’s LGBTQ+ Community

Among the negative consequences of Recep Erdoğan’s Presidency, his leadership has been harmful to the rights and safety of Turkey’s LGBTQ+ community. For example, in June 2021, Istanbul’s Pride parade was broken up by riot police. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used to forcibly disperse the crowd and prevent participants from getting to more populated areas of the city. According to Reporters Without Borders, local media reported at least 20 people were detained, including an Agence France-Presse photojournalist who has since been released. This forceful response to Istanbul’s Pride parade is yet another event in a broader crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in Turkey. Moreover, it represents the state’s increasingly hostile and discriminatory attitude towards minority groups.

A Pride parade has been held in Istanbul annually since 2003. The event attracted thousands of people every year, and it was the largest LGBTQ+ rally in the Muslim world. In 2014, 100,000 attended the march. Officials subsequently banned the parade, citing a concern for public safety. People have nevertheless continued to march in celebration and protest in solidarity. According to The Washington Post, participants in this year’s parade were chanting “rainbow is not a crime – discrimination is,” in defiance of the recent increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and actions, particularly in the last two years.

In April 2020, Ali Erbas, who leads the state’s Religious Affairs Directorate, said that Islam condemns homosexuality because it leads to “illness and decay.” In response, Erdoğan supported Erbas’ message and defended his discriminatory characterization. Following such statements by state officials, activists have reported increased verbal and physical attacks on Turkey’s LGBTQ+ community.

In June 2020, Erdogan warned of “insidious attacks” on traditional Turkish values, saying that people were trying to normalize perversions and compared them to a national security threat. Erdoğan has used this homophobic rhetoric on several occasions, often as an excuse for his actions. For example, in March 2021, Erdogan issued a decree that annulled Turkey’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe Convention to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. In addition to this attack on women’s rights, state officials used it as an opportunity to target LGBTQ+ peoples and spread discriminatory rhetoric. Erdoğan’s spokesperson argued that the Convention’s original purpose of protecting women’s rights had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality.”

Before coming to power in 2003, Erdoğan was speaking in favour of LGBTQ+ rights and pledged to protect them. However, in attempts to gain conservative and nationalist votes to help his party’s falling popularity, Erdoğan has resorted to using hostile rhetoric against minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. In a report in March, Human Rights Watch said that “anti-LGBT speeches and social media posts by top government officials have become common,” as part of a broader government assault on human rights and democracy. Activists explain that such rhetoric makes them scapegoats and targets, putting the LGBTQ+ community at increased risk.

Previously, Turkey was a relatively open Muslim society that provided shelter and safe refuge for persecuted LGBTQ+ in the surrounding region. Now, the safety of LGBTQ+ peoples in Turkey is seriously threatened by the increasingly discriminatory and divisive rhetoric used by Erdoğan and other state officials. President Erdoğan is trying to tap into his nationalist and conservative support base by creating a resurgence of identity politics in Turkey. In doing so, his actions have threatened democracy as a whole and have widely curtailed rights, particularly of minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community.